To Battle Wartime Hunger, Gazans Turn to a Humble Leafy Green

As the Israeli military campaign to destroy Hamas pummeled his neighborhood in northern Gaza, reducing buildings to rubble and forcing residents to flee, the Palestinian laborer realized that he was running out of food.

The shops had closed, the markets had emptied and fighting prevented supplies from reaching them. So he and his remaining neighbors gathered a plant known as khobeza that grew near their homes and cooked it to sustain themselves, he said.

“It supported us more than everyone else in the world,” the laborer, Amin Abed, 35, said recently by phone from Gaza. “People survived the darkest chapters of the war on khobeza alone.”

For many generations, the people of the Holy Land have foraged for khobeza, a hearty green with a taste and texture somewhere between spinach and kale that sprouts in knee-high thickets along roadsides and empty patches of dirt after the first winter rains. Cooks sauté it in olive oil, season it with onions or boil it into soup to make tasty, low-cost meals.

Now, this green, a variety of mallow, is making up an outsize portion of many Gazans’ diets by providing an inexpensive way to blunt hunger. At a time when most other food is largely unavailable or prohibitively expensive, Gazans can harvest khobeza themselves and cook it by itself, or with a few other ingredients.

As Israel has imposed a near-complete blockade on the territory, aid groups and United Nations officials have increasingly warned that the amount of food entering Gaza cannot feed its roughly 2.2 million people, pushing ever larger numbers of Gazans toward catastrophic hunger. Malnutrition-related deaths have become more common, and an international group of experts warned last month that the entire population of Gaza faced acute food shortages and that famine-like conditions were “imminent” in the north, where aid is scarce.

“People don’t grasp how empty and dire the situation is there, from the price of a bag of flour to a bag of onions,” said Reem Kassis, a Palestinian writer who included a khobeza recipe in her most recent cookbook.

The plant, which is also eaten in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and elsewhere, grows wild and has a relatively mild flavor. In normal times, it is often seasoned with lemon juice or chili pepper.

Ms. Kassis said her mother’s family cooked it as a thick stew, filled with caramelized onions and drops of dough. Her father sautéed the plant in olive oil and drizzled it with lemon juice.

“It is considered a humble meal, not something you would serve your guests,” Ms. Kassis said. “In the absence of anything else, it is nutritious. You can stretch it, you can add dough or bread, you can add onions.”

In Gaza, where ingredients are scarce, many families boil it into a thin soup that can be shared among large numbers of people.

“We have been eating khobeza since the time of our ancestors,” said Sulaiman Abu Khadija, 32, an agricultural worker. “One generation passed it to another.”

Sulaiman Abu Khadija collecting khobeza in Gaza. “Many people have eaten it during this war because there are no options for different vegetables,” he said.Credit…Bilal Shbair for The New York Times

Mr. Abu Khadija, his wife and their three children live in Deir al Balah, in central Gaza, and he sometimes walks far to reach open land where he can pick khobeza.

“Many people have eaten it during this war because there are no options for different vegetables,” he said. “It is easy to get anywhere and can be cooked quickly and simply.”

His family makes soup, boiling the leaves and then changing the water to ensure that the food is clean, he said.

While he knew the plant well before the war, he said some city dwellers who had been displaced from northern Gaza were unfamiliar with it, but pleasantly surprised when they tasted it.

It is often eaten hot, but some Gazans, like Mr. Abu Khadija, consider it more delicious cold.

The plant is not widely consumed in Israel, but it grows extensively there, and some chefs consider it a treasured local ingredient.

Moshe Basson, the executive chef and owner of the Eucalyptus restaurant in Jerusalem, said he had seen a video on social media that said it showed Gazans eating “weeds.”

“This is not a weed,” he recalled thinking. “This has to be khobeza.”

His cookbook features recipes that use khobeza, he said, and his current menu includes stuffed khobeza leaves and khobeza sautéed with garlic, olive oil and mushrooms, he said.

He was not at all surprised to see Gazans eating the plant.

“It is a medicine,” he said. “It is full of nutrition and for me as a chef, it is tasty.”

In their history, Israelis, too, have turned to khobeza in times of need.

During the war surrounding Israel’s foundation in 1948, Arab forces imposed a punishing siege on Jerusalem, and Jews trapped inside the city sent their children to forage for khobeza, also known as chalamit in Hebrew.

In the end, the Jews held out and the siege failed.

In this war, with Israeli jets raining bombs on Gaza and Israeli troops on the ground in parts of the territory, even foraging for khobeza can be perilous.

“No aid or anything else comes down to us,” said Rawan al-Khoudary, 22, referring to airdrops of food carried out by the United States and other countries.

As food grew scarce where she lives in northern Gaza, she said, her husband often went to agricultural land near the frontier with Israel to gather eggplants and khobeza. But during one trip, her cousin’s husband was shot and killed by someone the family believes was an Israeli sniper.

Now, they pick khobeza elsewhere.

“We make it into soup, we make it into stew, we make it into whatever we can,” she said. “We are living on khobeza.”

Abu Bakr Bashir contributed reporting from London, and Hiba Yazbek from Jerusalem.

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